Urban Wire Climate Planning Has Left Out Disabled People in Rural Areas. Here’s How to Fix That.
Anne N. Junod, Nina Russell, Corianne Payton Scally
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When Hurricane Idalia struck the “Big Bend” region of Florida—where the panhandle meets the peninsula—in August this year, news media and insurance industry coverage reported that Florida “dodged a bullet” because the powerful category 3 storm made landfall in a rural part of the state instead of a major city.

Yet the Big Bend region lacks many of the climate resilience assets of larger metropolitan areas, making disasters like Idalia uniquely destructive. The rural counties where Idalia hit are among the state’s poorest, with 1 in 5 residents living in poverty and median household incomes about $15,000–$20,000 below state averages. Residents in Idalia’s path were also deeply underinsured, with flood insurance take-up before the storm in hardest-hit Taylor, Dixie, and Levy Counties at just 5 percent.

These disparities mean that although actuarial damages may be lower in rural areas like Big Bend, the relative impact of disasters can be exceedingly high.

Compounding these challenges, rural areas are also home to a disproportionate share of people with disabilities—about 1 in 3 rural adults has a disability—and many rural areas have unique and diverse vulnerabilities to climate change–related hazards.

Compared with urban areas, rural places are at greater risk to numerous climate threats, such as extreme heat and wildfire. They also tend to have fewer resources to address these risks because they have smaller tax bases, are farther from essential services, and have less local and government capacity to plan, fund, and implement climate resilience interventions.

Because of climate change, the severity and intensity of environmental disasters like Idalia are increasing. However, gaps in evidence and data mean we know very little about what disabled people in rural areas need in the face of current and future climate threats.

Understanding existing evidence gaps and opportunities for action will help improve climate outcomes for people with disabilities everywhere, including the many rural areas where disability vulnerabilities are disproportionately high.

Expanding data and assessment on risks and needs

Despite vulnerabilities, data on the specific climate-related risks and needs of rural areas—and much less people with disabilities living there—tends to be piecemeal and limited, especially in small-enough geographies and at high-enough quality to accurately describe rural realities.

Even less is known about “low attention,” “slow,” or more-chronic climate hazards, such as localized and inland flooding or extreme heat, which receive far less attention and federal investment than high-profile disasters—despite their greater relative impacts on both rural communities and disabled people.

As climate change accelerates the severity and intensity of extreme weather and related disaster events, local, state, and federal costs are on the rise—but only the worst disasters unlock major federal funding. Planning and financing to address lower attention—but still often catastrophic—disasters can be difficult to access, especially for rural areas with limited capacity.

For example, flooding of all types is worsening with climate change, but recovery costs are borne by communities and states when losses fall below major federal thresholds. For many rural areas, addressing even nuisance flooding can be prohibitively expensive, and people with mobility and accessibility disabilities (PDF) pay the highest price when critical transportation routes are under water. Similarly, extreme heat events are increasing and pose particular risks to disabled people, but extreme heat events don’t currently qualify for Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster recovery dollars, despite heat being the leading cause of weather-related death.

Steps to improve climate resilience for disabled people in rural areas

To support meaningful climate solutions that address diverse needs, disabled people living in rural areas need better planning and investments around climate risks. Most research on climate change and disasters focuses on urban areas. At the same time, people with disabilities experience unique barriers to life-saving resources that will strengthen their resilience to climate change impacts, but most interventions are not designed with disability in mind and exclude them by design (PDF). These barriers are compounded for disabled people in rural areas, who tend to be farther from services and have fewer investments targeted to them.

Recent federal initiatives signal progress, but more is needed. For example, the Fifth National Climate Needs Assessment calls for disability-inclusive climate planning and the meaningful involvement of disabled people and other underserved populations and communities—including rural communities—in planning and decisionmaking.

Federal agencies can consider these recommendations as they apply the White House’s new Climate Resilience Framework (PDF) to their climate programming and investments:

  • Explicitly consider and prioritize people with disabilities in program designs, grantmaking populations, and eligibility criteria, and invest in better evidence and data about different regional, disability, and climate vulnerabilities to inform these improvements.
  • Look to disability-led nongovernmental disaster recovery programs for examples of inclusive programs and priorities that are responsive to the needs of diverse populations and different disability types.
  • Consider existing federal models that already prioritize disaster response resources and assistance to other populations with specific needs as a roadmap to target supports to disabled people in rural communities.
  • Institutionalize robust evaluation processes and metrics to ensure programs and stakeholders can assess and track progress toward climate and disability equity goals.

Policymakers and programs can take these steps to influence a more equitable future where rural communities have access to climate planning resources and investments that protect and prioritize disabled people.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Climate change, disasters, and community resilience Disability equity policy
Tags Rural people and places Climate adaptation and resilience Climate impacts and community resilience Equitable disaster recovery
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
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